Eiger Ultra Trail

Published in Running / Featured - 15 mins to read

About four years ago, my then-housemate suggested that I watch The Race That Eats Its Young, a documentary about the legendary Barkley Marathons. I’d just taken up running and had expressed an interest in aiming for longer distances at slower paces rather than trying to go faster over shorter ones. I took his recommendation and was duly inspired by Brett Maune’s hyper-analytic race strategy, Jared Campbell’s persistent good spirits and raw fitness, but mostly by John Fegyveresi’s sheer determination in the face of extreme physical and psychological suffering. One day I wanted to run ultramarathons; the kind that would test me in the same way that Brett, Jared, John, and all the other people who DNFed at Barkley that year had been tested.

Last Friday, in a hotel room in Switzerland, my girlfriend and I once again watched The Race That Eats Its Young. The next day I woke up at 2:45am for the 4am start of the Eiger Ultra Trail, a race that covers 101km with 6700m of elevation gain along the way. I finished 24 hours and 3 minutes after I started.

Training beforehand had gone well, ish. Having never done this before, I had no idea what a reasonable training block for a novice looked like, so was probably too ambitious and struggled with fatigue, both physical and emotional, throughout the months leading up to the race. After running the Edinburgh marathon at the end of May, I didn’t manage to put together anything like the volume I’d hoped for, nor did I ever manage to hit a 100k training week, something else I had planned that would’ve bolstered my confidence. Still, I would estimate that I have ran 5 days out of every 7 for the last 8 months, and the only reason that wasn’t higher was due to COVID, a bout of depression, and a leg tattoo that took 10 days to heal properly. I’d got a promising number of 5-8 hour trail runs under my belt, as well as a recent weekend’s hiking and running in the Lake District. My core was a lot stronger than it had been when I signed up for the race, and I’d spent a handful of completely mind-numbing hours in the gym, hiking up the treadmill on max incline - although I suspect this was more valuable as mental preparation than physical.

The direct lead up to the race went a lot better than I’d feared it might - I had been concerned that I was carrying a lot of work stress that would manifest itself as lingering fatigue, but I took the whole week preceding the race off, and the stress melted away. The day before, I was worried that my nerves would play havoc with both my stomach and my sleep, thereby jeopardising my chances before I even got to toe the starting line - as it turned out, I managed to get three solid, carbohydrate heavy meals down and 6 hours of good sleep in (I attribute both those things almost wholly to my girlfriend’s soothing presence throughout). Then, race day. A moment I’d thought about every day for 8 months, that I’d poured hundreds of hours of training into, that I’d sacrificed drinking and social opportunities and the entire concept of Sundays for. Finally.

As soon as the metaphorical gun went off, I was already an emotional wreck. I had told myself in the week prior that even starting this race was an incredible achievement, and as I began jogging through the starting gate my eyes welled with a sense of pride I rarely feel. Myself and over 500 others ate up the tarmac towards the beginning of the trail, no longer groggy, now wide awake and full of trepidation and excitement as we neared the first climb. The goal for the climb up to Grosse Scheidegg was simple; follow Douglas Adams’ immortal mantra, Don’t Panic. As we climbed, the sun began rising behind us and painted the mountains shades of orange and pink. I started crying again - it seemed like the obvious thing to do.

The next section down into Bort was relatively straightforward (particularly with such fresh legs), and then came the climb up to First, replete with spectacular views of the Eiger and a terrifyingly pendulous suspension bridge. The climbing then continues up to the Faulhorn, the highest point of the race, at approximately 2650m above sea level… which sucked. My legs felt great but I hadn’t accounted for how the altitude would affect my aerobic systems, and I had to stop every hundred metres to allow my heart and lungs to recover. Fortunately the views from the top made the suffering more than worth it, and then came the long, hot, technical descent down to Burglauenen, the halfway point of the race. This was not only the lowest point in the race altitudinally, but also psychologically for me, as the 28 degree sun beat down, my knees hurt from the descent, and I still had the scariest climb to come.

In Burglauenen, it was possible for people who’d entered the 100k distance to switch to the 50k version, effectively dropping out but in return receiving the 50k finishers’ t-shirt and medal. While I was at the aid station, there was a queue forming in order to do just that - in fact the race had a 30% DNF rate overall. Folks all around me were relaxing, enjoying being done with their hard day’s labour, enjoying hot pasta and a cold beer in the sun. Perhaps in some sense it was tempting to drop out, but I knew I was never an option - if I had the 50k medal I knew that every time I looked at it, I’d feel a sense of disappointment, of regret, of not achieving what I’d set out to do. Besides; the next aid station was Wengen, my childhood home-from-home, and the one after that was Männlichen, where I’d tactically positioned my girlfriend in order to provide motivation and moral support.

The first half of the race had had plenty of company, between all of the E101 runners being bunched up at the start, and being slowly overtaken by a trickle of E51 runners as they caught us up. The second half was an altogether lonelier affair, with Burglauenen being the finishing line for the shorter distance, and as I left the aid station behind, I couldn’t see anyone else in my race at all. Fortunately the climb up to Wengen is largely on non-technical terrain and I breezed past some people as I made good time into the village where I’ve spent the majority of my Christmases. Sadly there wasn’t much time to reminisce, as I had a literal mountain to climb.

In the entire buildup to the race, the Wengen - Männlichen section was the one that I was most scared of, and I’d known it’d likely be here that my race was decided. The earlier climb up the Faulhorn had been the hardest one I’d ever done, and I fully expected this one to be even worse, as it climbs ~1000m in just 5km. I even thought it might take me three hours and I’d simply miss the aid station cutoff, thus prematurely ending my race - but I knew my girlfriend was waiting at the top, and I had to see her, and if I missed the cutoff then we could take the gondola down together and that wouldn’t be so bad.

It was long, and it sucked, but it didn’t take me three hours, instead it was closer to an hour and three quarters. I had to fight back tears the whole time I spent with Jess at the aid station, I couldn’t get even a couple of words out without my voice breaking. If starting had been an achievement to be proud of, making it to Männlichen within the cutoff was something else entirely, and I felt so grateful to her for having supported me through not only this trip, but through months of training.

It was also at this point that I started to think I might actually finish this damn thing. The hardest climbs were behind me, my legs still felt really strong, I’d had no meaningful stomach issues, and I had about an hour’s buffer over the cutoff to play with. I had thought that I would’ve found the sunset and resultant darkness a big psychological challenge, but now I was excited for it as it’d cool things down. I set off running for the Lauberhorn and Kleine Scheidegg - there was plenty of gas left in the tank.

From this point onwards, it was simply a case of getting it done. I climbed the Lauberhorn and ran down the slope that I’d skied down hundreds of times, and felt a rush of nostalgia at the aid station in Kleine Scheidegg where I’d eaten lunch and taken the train from on every ski holiday for years (the smell was so familiar!). Hiking the moraine up to Eigergletscher was a slog, but I didn’t stop, despite the altitude. Despite the sun having fully set, the silhouettes of the mountains loomed large above us, flickering headtorches showed me the way forward, and a palpable sense of calm hung in the air, penetrated only by the tinkling of cowbells and the roar of waterfalls. It was magical.

The descent into Alpiglen was slow and technical, but then the way to Marmorbruch was blissfully runnable and once again familiar as the end of a trail I had skied many times. There is one final kick in the teeth before the race is over - despite essentially being in Grindelwald, and being able to not only see the finishing area but being able to hear the announcer’s microphone and the blasting of celebratory music, there is one final climb up to Pfingstegg. It is in the forest, and of course it is dark, so you never know how far there is left to go. The only symptom I displayed of lack of sleep hit me during this climb, as I could not for the life of me remember what the aid station was called, even though I had probably already thought it a hundred times that day.

Fortunately, once the climb did indeed end, the volunteer greeted me with a friendly “herzlich wilkommen auf Pfingstegg!” and I came back to reality. It was only here that I knew I was 100% going to make it - at 3:15, I had an hour and three quarters to make it the final 6km, and could crawl it if I had to.

The terrain was again favourable, and the pace was quick. I ran most of the way home, legs still feeling strong, and got to experience a moment that I had spent so long fantasising about - crossing the finishing line, stopping my watch, and receiving my finisher’s medal; a literal chunk of the Eiger, taken from the streams running off the mountain, bored with a hole and completed with a ribbon.

At the end I felt great - not just in the sense that I had achieved something that I was incredibly proud of, but in the sense that I had more in the tank. I could’ve kept going, at least for a little bit. My knees were a little sore but not completely shot; if I had a solid climb to give them a bit of a break they’d have rallied. I had some blisters but they weren’t at the unmanageable stage, and even then I’d only let them get that bad because I knew I didn’t have to continue past the 100k mark. I felt wide awake, with no meaningful signs of sleep deprivation, and had the will to continue - my lowest point emotionally had been in Burglauenen but it had been nothing compared to other low points I’d felt in the 50k races I did last year. Pretty much the first thing I said to my girlfriend was “I feel great - I could keep going - I could do a hundred miles”.

The obvious next question is of course “so, what’s next?”, but in order to ensure the answer I give to that is a healthy one, I have to reflect on my motivations for running the EUT in the first place, and what I learned during the experience. My desire to run this race was certainly not born entirely from a healthy place. During our trip, Jess said to me that she thought in order to run one of these races, you have to be a bit nuts, and she’s absolutely right. You have to be at peace with a lot of suffering during training, and a lot of potential suffering during the race. It really helps to be running away from something during these ultras.

And of course, I have that in spades. Part of the reason I think I am quite well suited to these kinds of endurance events is because of my history of poor mental health - my experiences with depression have taught me to endure a great amount of pain without giving up, which is exactly what’s required to succeed at this kind of thing.

Why would I even want to do something so ridiculous in the first place? I feel like the story of my life is failing to meet my high potential over and over and over again. Of setting ambitious goals and not working hard enough to make them a reality. I wanted to do this to prove to myself that if I set my mind to something difficult, I do actually have the capacity to put in the work and see it through. This proved that to me.

There was, unsurprisingly, some element of weight-management to the whole thing. When signing up, I had hoped to run the race while weighing ~70kg, and thought that surely the looming prospect of running for 24 hours in the Alps would be motivation enough to put the donut down. Ironically enough I ran the race at 84kg, almost exactly the same weight I started the training block at. I still harbour no shortage of ill will towards my body, but achieving this, despite in my mind “not looking like a runner”, has forced me to reconsider my own relationship with it.

Naturally there were genuine healthy reasons too! Spending time outdoors, in scenery as beautiful as that, is reason enough on its own. I love the sense of camaraderie and the adventure of the whole thing. I loved the doubt, spending the majority of the race none the wiser as to what my chances of success were. Having this race to train for has made me get out my flat and exercise almost every day, has left me fitter and healthier, and has encouraged me to leave the city and explore the trails more, and spend quality time with friends in the process. All good, healthy, normal things.

Which is a long way of saying, obviously I am going to do another one of these races, but I want to shift the rationale behind it towards the constructive end of the spectrum. I want to focus on my health, physical and mental, and use the end-goal of running ultras as a way to explore nature, go on adventures, and discover more about myself and the world around me in a way that is balanced and sustainable. Ultimately I think this will require balancing the stress of a job with being able to manage the other aspects of my life, and for at least a couple of months, that is going to be my focus.

After that… well who knows. There is certainly no shortage of races I want to do. One of the biggest takeaways from the EUT was a sense of belief that I could complete a hundred mile race - not only that, but that I might actually be able to complete the hundred mile race, the UTMB. I’ve been saying for the past year or two that I’d love to do it one day, but that day had always seemed far away and wholly disconnected from the present, and that some kind of unparalleled leap in fitness and ability would be required in order for it to be feasible. Now - I know I have it in me.

The qualification process for UTMB is not entirely straightforward, and while the EUT is a good start, in order to get a place in the main event I will have to compete in several other UTMB World Series events, in different countries, over the next couple of years. Each will be its own adventure and worth it in its own right, but when viewed as a whole, it will be a time consuming and expensive journey that would likely preclude me from having any other goals races for the foreseeable future.

Obviously none of that is going to stop me. This is the UTMB we’re talking about - to finish it would be a lifetime achievement. If the plan still seems solid after a couple of months of recovery and contemplation, then I’ll draw up a strategy in order to get all the qualification points I need to make it happen.

In the meantime, I want to do some fun races, and I already have a couple lined up. I have the Big Half, Bacchus Wine Half and Guernsey Half on back-to-back-to-back weekends in September. I am quite tempted by the GUN31, particularly as, judging by last year’s results, it’d probably be the closest I’ll ever get to the podium of an ultra. I’m a bit gutted that the Eden Valley 50k isn’t happening again this year, but I am tempted by the North Chilterns 50k and Ultra London in October… if I don’t end up going to another UTMB World Series race.

The EUT was perhaps the best thing I’ve ever done. Even a week later, I’m still not convinced it’s fully sunk in quite what I achieved. The experience was everything I’d hoped for and much more, and I suspect I will remember it for the rest of my life. I completely believe that if I can do this, then anyone can. I am sure this will be the first of many of this kind of race, and I cannot wait for the next one.

See other posts in the Marathons series